Hurricane Lili, downgraded to a tropical storm, on Thursday swept by east of Houston, Texas, where preparations for the delayed launch of the space shuttle Atlantis resumed, NASA said.
Power was turned back on at the Johnson Space Center, near Houston, to allow communications and monitoring of the US section of the orbiting International Space Station (ISS) to resume.
Atlantis is now due to blast off to the ISS on Monday, sometime between 2:00 pm and 6:00 pm (1800 to 2200 GMT). The exact time will be announced by NASA Sunday.
The US support group in Moscow took over the ISS monitoring operations, as the Johnson center shut off power to protect its computer systems from damage, until the hurricane passed by, NASA said.
The powerful hurricane crashed into the US Gulf coast Thursday with heavy winds, surf and rain sending thousands fleeing for their lives before weakening to a tropical storm.
At 1900 GMT, the center of Lili was about 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Alexandria, Louisiana, moving at 26 kilometers an hour (16 miles per hour), the US National Hurricane Center in Miami said.
Atlantis' 11-day mission, with a team of six astronauts aboard, aims to install a 15-meter (45-foot), 390-million dollar arm on the ISS.
President George W. Bush declared the Gulf of Mexico state of Louisiana a disaster area, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, which will released federal disaster funds to the waterlogged state.
At 1900 GMT, the center of Lili was about 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Alexandria, Louisiana, moving at 26 kilometers an hour (16 miles per hour), the US National Hurricane Center in Miami said. While still dumping driving rains, Lili's maximum sustained winds had decreased in intensity to about 113 kilometers per hour (70 miles an hour) over a smaller area.
Although still in the center of the storm, the famed port city of New Orleans, which straddles the Mississippi river delta, breathed a sign of relief, although the danger of flooding remained.
"They've dodged two bullets in my opinion," said Joe Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, referring to Tropical Storm Isidore which dumped 30 centimeters (12 inches) of rain on the city only last week.
However, "Once they get more water than they can handle it's a serious problem. They're a bowl in New Orleans," he said.
Rainfall accumulations of 10-20 centimeters (4-8 inches) were possible, with the potential to cause dangerous flooding, the hurricane center said.
"Isolated tornadoes are possible over eastern Louisiana and central south Mississippi," the center added.
No storm-related deaths and only minimal damages were reported by local Louisiana authorities, although coastal evacuees were still not allowed to return home.
Lili already has killed eight people in Jamaica, St. Vincent and Cuba as it churned through the Caribbean sea.
"Stay in the center of your home, don't get close to the windows. Parents, do not panic, stay calm so your children won't be afraid," authorities announced over the radio.
Hotels inland were full of coastal refugees, huddled together in darkened corridors -- power was cut as a precaution early in the day in most storm-affected areas -- around battery-operated radios and television, anxiously listening for news.
After gaining enough strength Wednesday to reach category four status on the Saffir-Simpson scale, Lili crashed ashore early Thursday as a weaker but still potentially damaging category two hurricane on the western edge of Vermillion Bay.
"We were ready for a category-four hurricane. We had a lot of people go inland," said Edie Casselman, who works for the New Iberia, Louisiana, mayor's office.
"We're very relieved right now because it could have been much, much worse."
Some 200,000 people had been asked to evacuate and about 100,000 customers in Louisiana were without electricity after the storm knocked down some power lines and snapped mid-sized tree branches.
In New Orleans, where standing up to a potentially deadly storm with a smile on one's face and a drink in one's hand is part of local legend, a handful of bars kept their doors open. Windows were boarded up, with a festive spray-painted announcement: "Hurricane Party" inside.
To the west in Texas, more than 50,000 had left their homes and filled up hotel rooms as far as the Arkansas border.
Authorities in Texas' Orange and Jefferson counties along the Louisiana border later lifted a voluntary evacuation order and "today they're going back home," Texas emergency coordinator Jack Colley said.
"The damage that will be seen in our state at this particular time from our estimates will be minimal," Texas Governor Rick Perry said. "In Texas we have a saying ... you hope for the best but you prepare for the worst. And that's exactly what we did."
Lili tore across western Cuba earlier this week, and did considerable damage, particularly on the Isle of Youth off the southwest coast of the Cuban mainland, where one person was killed, five were hurt and thousands of homes damaged, Cuban officials said.
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Atlantis Launch Delayed Until Monday
Cape Canaveral (AFP) Oct 03, 2002
The launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis has been postponed until Monday due to Hurricane Lili, NASA said here Wednesday.
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